FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The mayor of this eastern North Carolina city had a stark warning Saturday for residents in the path of potentially unprecedented flooding from Tropical Storm Florence: Leave.
Mayor Mitch Colvin told people living within a mile of the region's main river, the Cape Fear, or the nearby Little River, that they had until 3 p.m. Sunday to get out.
"If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible," Colvin said.
The mayor spoke at an afternoon press conference along with other city and county officials who urged people to take the storm seriously. While Florence has been downgraded from a major hurricane, its slow movement and massive amounts of rain is expected to cause more flooding than has been seen in at least a lifetime.
The warning came just days after residents of other eastern communities who chose to forgo evacuation found themselves in dire situations. Multiple deaths have been reported.
In New Bern, swift water boat teams rescued nearly 500 people who decided to wait out Florence, some scrambling into their upper floors, attics and even roofs to escape shockingly fast floodwaters.
The expected 20-plus inches of rain over five days forecast by the National Weather Service means Fayetteville and the surrounding area will likely experience two 500-year floods within two years.
Until earlier Saturday, officials had only encouraged residents to evacuate.
But with the memory of deadly Hurricane Matthew still fresh from two years ago and with Florence continuing to dump rain in the eastern part of the state, the call was made Saturday afternoon to issue the mandatory order.
At least 2,800 households are thought to be within the evacuation zone. Fayetteville is the sixth-largest city in the state with 205,000 people. There are another 119,000 living in smaller towns and unincorporated areas in the county.
What Fayetteville is facing with Florence is potentially worse than two years ago with Matthew, when at least four people died as a result of flash flooding.
This time, the biggest danger isn't flash floods. Instead the main threat will actually come when the rain stops and the water drains from the region into the rivers, officials said.
The Cape Fear was at 12.15 feet at 5 p.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service. Flood level is 35 feet. During Matthew, it reached 58 feet. By Tuesday, officials expect more than 62 feet for the river that runs through the center of the city.
While the storm didn't make as violent an appearance as first expected, it was still very dangerous, officials said. Floodwaters from other areas poured into the rivers upstream.
"All persons who refuse or fail to comply with this mandatory evacuation order shall do so at their own risk," the official announcement said, adding that emergency responders and other rescue personnel may not come to save them after the evacuation deadline passes.
Complicating the move for residents were power outages and road closures. As of Saturday morning more than 86,000 households were without electricity and most streetlights were not working. A portion of the region's major highway, Interstate 95, was shut down from exit 65 to exit 81. Alternate routes were posted.